Sunny and with the temperature pushing 50 degrees, Thursday was a perfect early-spring day for golf in Minnesota, where with very few exceptions a ball hasn’t been struck since Gov. Tim Walz last week ordered closed “places of public accommodation,” a group that includes golf clubs and country clubs.
But golfers played Thursday at Stonebrooke Golf Club in Shakopee, which remained open even when the vast majority of local courses have closed or haven’t opened yet because of the coronavirus pandemic and the governor’s executive orders intended to protect Minnesotans from it.
More than 60 vehicles were parked there at midday and as many as 200 golfers throughout the day walked and carried or pushed their bags with several distancing safety measures in place. Golfers did the same busily not far down the road at CreeksBend near New Prague.
The state’s golf organizations — Minnesota PGA, Minnesota Golf Association, club managers, superintendents, course owners — united for a “One Voice” campaign that lobbied the Capitol to seek updates on how it should proceed and inform government officials on golf’s many benefits, health and otherwise, even in these strange social-distancing times.
“We’ve received some heat from people about being open. And we’ve received tremendous support, even from people not golfers.”
It also has sought clarification on what Walz’s emergency orders mean to an alarmed golf industry concerned about its future, but also realistic about its place in unprecedented health and economic crises that some on the infection front lines call apocalyptic.
Walz’s new “stay-at-home” order that starts Friday night will keep courses closed at least through April 10. Last week’s 20-4 order that included golf clubs and country clubs has been extended to May 1. The closures are intended to “flatten the curve” of the spread of coronavirus, or as Walz said, to “break the chain of infections and buy us some time.”
“We want to get people playing as much as anybody, but we just have to think about this for a second,” Oak Marsh Golf Course GM/Director of Golf Steve Whillock said. “I know golfers don’t get it. I had a guy call and had no idea what was going on.”
Oak Marsh, in Oakdale, closed last week after five early, busy days that Whillock said left it “poised for the best year of all time.” He called the decision “the right thing to do.” Executive-order violations can be punished with as much as a $1,000 fine or 90 days’ imprisonment as well.
At Stonebrooke on Thursday, golfers played on.
Stonebrooke owner Gary Laurent has kept his course open while most every other metro area course — CreeksBend being an exception — shut down a week ago. He has done so because of what he called “our interpretation” of Walz’s original order that closed “golf clubs.”
Laurent interprets that to mean Stonebrooke’s clubhouse and food and beverage operations that he has closed except for curbside takeout orders, but not the course itself.
“We’ve received some heat from people about being open,” Laurent said, “and we’ve received tremendous support, even from people not golfers.”
Scott County Attorney Ron Hocevar told law-enforcement officials that Stonebrooke shouldn’t open after Walz’s stay-at-home order begins.
Until the order arrives, he agrees with Laurent’s interpretation. “What would be safer than walking through a park, not breathing the same air as other people?” Hocevar asked.
Part of Minnesota golf’s One Voice effort, MGA Executive Director Tom Ryan said golf can be made safe in these times, in a state where the stay-at-home order allows for walking, running, hiking and biking. In a statement that announced its formation, his group said it wants to be “part of the solution and not the problem.”
“We’re trying to be very respectful,” Ryan said. “Public health and safety is priority No. 1. They’re getting a ton of questions from a lot of industries about what all of this means. We’re waiting to hear. When we do hopefully get a positive response, we are ready to put all precautionary procedures in place to protect golfers and golf course staff.”
Those procedures include eliminating anything another golfer can touch. Stay at least 6 feet apart, of course, and forgo the customary post-round handshake.
“People are going to be pent-up to get out,” Ryan said. “Golfers are going to want to get out. Not everybody will, but people are looking for stuff to do.”
Illinois state officials reversed course Thursday and revised its own stay-home order and closed courses.A change.org petition that wants golf allowed in Minnesota for “mental and physical well-being” during the stay-home order had received more than 11,500 signatures sought late Thursday night.
Last week, Walz was asked if golf could go on if it were made safe with such steps.
“If this is going to go on very longer, we’ve got to figure out where people can at least go,” Walz said before he made his stay-at-home order. “Where they can walk, where they can get some exercise in a way that’s safe.”
Some local golf courses’ banquet facilities and food services have been canceled through May and soon into summer. Event cancellations could cost some courses hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some course owners already are seeking low-interest loans and help from the Small Business Administration.
Whillock calls himself “frustrated” and “sad” and said the situation was “devastating” for everybody.
“Half of our revenue is gone,” he said. “You can make your season by having a good April or a good fall. The golf season here is 180 days, give or take. We were rocking and rolling until we closed.”